Cork looks to medium long haul as its business offering grows
With recent CSO figures again underlining Dublin Airport's dominance - accounting for 87pc of the total passenger numbers in Ireland - it might appear that there's only one game in town for business travellers.
But Ireland's second-busiest airport has been quietly ramping up its offering for the corporate market in recent weeks, with two major announcements at Cork Airport. First up was a daily service by Air France's Hop! unit, connecting Cork to the French carrier's global network via Paris' Charles De Gaulle.
"They [Air France] haven't had a new route in Ireland in years - I think it's the first time since they launched Dublin-Paris something like 30 years ago," Niall MacCarthy, managing director of Cork Airport, told the Sunday Independent.
On the subject of connectivity, he said it opens up a number of destination cities - including Rio, Sao Paulo, Havana, Singapore, Bangkok and Beijing - to the business community in Cork and the Munster region. "We're a small city in a European context and you wouldn't have the case for direct connections because you just couldn't fill the plane, but if you can go into a hub and connect at decent prices then that's the best of both worlds," MacCarthy said.
With 4pc passenger growth projected for this year, the airport is now looking at its B2B plans to attract new airlines for the 2019 season.
"I don't see ultra long haul out of Cork but I do see longer haul - more medium long haul," he said, with the airport keen to expand its transatlantic offering on top of its Norwegian service to upstate New York: "Long haul is here to stay in Cork, and I can see transatlantic growing."
Having a transatlantic option has made others take notice. Enda Corneille, head of Emirates in Ireland, told this column that the airline's head office in Dubai has looked at the case of adding to its Dublin service with another route out of Ireland and said, in the case of Cork, "for an airline like Emirates to see a successful transatlantic operation gives you some hints as to the strength of the local economy".
Corneille argued that because "the road network in Ireland is so good now that you risk, in political terms, splitting your vote" and may "damage our Dublin product". However, he added: "If a profitable opportunity presents itself we'll certainly look at it." MacCarthy, hailing from Ranelagh in Dublin, has the tricky task of differentiating the airport's product from its big brother in the DAA, Dublin Airport, and grabbing a slice of its pie.
He believes a niche is the only chance of increasing routes: "It's Dublin by a long shot, then Cork, then Shannon, then Knock - it's like we're a centre and Dublin is the main shopping centre. If you don't differentiate yourself you're going to get eaten up."
But he argues that small can be better: "Our gig is we offer you a better customer service - you're not going to be waiting for anything, you've got short walking distances and parking is cheaper, so that offers us a niche." Cork was recently voted number one small airport by Airports Council Europe, with MacCarthy adding: "They audit you, Red C talk to your customers so it's not like it's pulled out of a hat."
That's where the second piece of business news comes in - the arrival of the Aspire business lounge. The 31st such facility globally, it's the first time the chain has entered the Irish market, with the lounge being operated by Swissport. MacCarthy said Aspire came to the airport looking to open a lounge, "saying we want to be associated with a strong brand that's niche. They want to flog the idea to other airports."
He admits that it was a welcome change, replacing an old bar run by the airport itself. "There was an old lounge but it got dated and tatty. Our gig is to run airports, we're not food and beverage people," he admits. "Swissport have a lounge operation that tenders for business worldwide and said there's a good fit here. They said "we want your business" and they are going to use it as case study for how an airport should be run, we want to be part of this."
After years of lobbying from Ireland, the direct service from Dublin to Beijing finally got off the ground last week. But China has been eyeing it for years, Ryan Zhang, general manager of Hainan Airlines, told this column.
"We've been looking at Dublin for some time, at least five years," he said. "Ireland is the largest market in Europe for Chinese traffic that doesn't have a non-stop flight and we wanted to capitalise on it." With 70,000 Chinese visitors to here last year, Zhang said "we wanted to grow this significantly".
In all, 120,000 travelled between the two countries in 2017, with Beijing accounting for more than one third of the trips. He believes that the business market will be small at first, "but we an expect this to grow. Hainan is a five-star Skytrax airline [Ireland's highest ranking is Aer Lingus with four stars]."
He said the cabin experience offers a totally flat bed seat, USB port, Bulgari amenity kit and Chinese or Western inflight dining. While half of the eastbound services are via Edinburgh, the airline will be looking at frequencies out of Dublin after bedding in the service. The fourth-biggest airline in China, Hainan has major connectivity out of Beijing, its 44 destinations include the likes of Taipei and Shanghai.
Sunday Indo Business